How Matt Nagy rescued the Chicago Bears from years in the undertow

On Sunday, only minutes after Chicago Bears fans invaded Twitter after an unsavory loss to criticize first-year head coach Matt Nagy for his clock-management skills, Nagy stood at a podium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and, well, criticized himself for his clock-management skills.

The 30-27 overtime loss to the struggling New York Giants dropped the Bears’ record to 8-4 – better after 12 games than all but one of the Bears’ last seven playoff-less seasons – and the defeat stung less when Minnesota, the Bears’ closest rivals in the NFC North, fell later to Dallas.

Nagy was surely more wired into what unfolded at a soggy MetLife Stadium than he was on what people thought about him on Twitter. But when his second-quarter timeout, which seemed to change the momentum of the game, was brought up in a news conference, Nagy was circumspect.

“So,” he said, calmly, “there was an opportunity there, the play before, where it’s third-and-long, and you get an opportunity to maybe go after them with the punt-block team – and they got a lot of yards on that next down-and-distance – and then the following play, there was six seconds left, and they ended up catching the ball and getting out of bounds for another eight yards. That’s a crucial eight yards, and so I take responsibility for that.”

So I take responsibility for that. How many NFL coaches do you hear say that? The timeout stopped the clock and led to a 57-yard field goal that narrowed the Bears’ lead to 14-10, which the Bears lost anyway, needing a frantic late comeback to tie the game.

Clock-management questions tend to drive NFL coaches nuts, or at least put them on the defensive, as if their entire coaching portfolio is being brought into question. Nagy sounded as if this would be a teaching moment – for him – and that he’d bounce back from it.

Although they face the fearsome Los Angeles Rams this week, the Bears would have to do a swan dive not to make the playoffs. They play the Green Bay Packers, who just canned their coach, then the San Francisco 49ers, who are 2-10, before ending the regular season at Minnesota, who are 1½ games behind.

Much credit for the Bears’ surge has been given to their defense, which was strong even before they stole – or, acquired – linebacker Khalil Mack from the Raiders oin September. But Nagy, the 40-year-old coach who has already hurdled a lot in his life, has planted belief in his team.

Nagy was hired, in large part, to tutor the team’s young quarterback Mitch Trubisky, as he had in Kansas City where he brought along a certain phenom named Patrick Mahomes. Nagy used to make money himself playing quarterback, but his playing career never reached the heights enjoyed by Trubisky (who missed Sunday’s game through injury) or Mahomes. He was a star high school quarterback in Manheim, Pennsylvania, a town that takes its Barons very seriously, but he was not recruited much because he was perceived to be too short and too slow.

So he ended up at the University of Delaware, a level down from the top of the college football hierarchy, and had a fine collegiate career before playing for five seasons in the Arena League for teams like the Georgia Force and Columbus Destroyers, coaching Pennsylvania high-school teams in the offseason.

Nagy sold real estate before the Eagles signed him first as a player, then as an unpaid coaching intern, gradually working his way up the ladder under ex-coach Andy Reid. When Reid landed in Kansas City, Reid brought him along, and then along came Mahomes.

People still stumble over how to pronounce his last name (it is neggy), but the changes Nagy made to loosen up the Bears’ offense – plus the decision to retain defensive coordinator Vic Fangio – have revived a franchise that has won only one playoff game since 2007.

NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback)

Akiem Hicks (332 pounds) is the first @ChicagoBears defender to score a rushing TD since…

William “The Refrigerator” Perry (335 pounds) in Super Bowl XX. @The_Dream99 pic.twitter.com/xF4V81A1hR

December 2, 2018

Nagy’s attraction to the unexpected was evident on Sunday. Chicago took the lead in the second quarter on a one-yard plunge by 324lbs defensive end Akiem Hicks on a play called “Freezer Left.” The play is a homage to William “The Refrigerator” Perry, the defensive tackle who ran the ball several times in short-yardage situations (including in Super Bowl XX, much to the chagrin of Walter Payton fans) during Chicago’s raucous run to the world championship 33 years ago.

“I need to be as far away from the ball as possible on a regular basis when it comes to offense,” Hicks said after the game. “ My strengths are for what they pay me to do – go hit quarterbacks.”

Sunday’s game started badly for the Bears, with backup quarterback Chase Daniel throwing an interception that Giants linebacker Alec Ogletree returned eight yards for a touchdown. But the Bears defense was able to clamp down – until Nagy’s fateful timeout. He took the hit in the postgame news conference for that, but Chicago cornerback Prince Amukamara, a former Giants’ first-round draft pick, said the defense had not followed the coaches’ orders on the two plays that followed it, resulting in a game-changing field goal.

“That was our defense being undisciplined,” Amukamara said.

But on Monday, Nagy said at another news conference: “For me and where our team is, yesterday can be frustrating. Then you step back, watch the tape and you’re thankful for where you’re at.”

The Bears don’t have a playoff berth yet, and the Rams are looming. Nagy and his new team will keep addressing their issues, even those not pointed out by the helpful fans on Twitter.

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